We should ponder William Cotter's concerns about administration plans to abolish automobile fuel efficiency standards (JofC, Feb. 18). The proposal to do so is a triumph of ideology over sound judgment.

The increase of 36 percent in the fuel efficiency of passenger cars since gas guzzling peaked in 1973 is a major factor in reducing U.S. oil consumption and dependence. It would not have happened without a friendly nudge from the government, and we can do even better.With 50 percent of U.S. oil consumption required to produce gasoline for passenger cars, anything that improves automobile performance makes a major dent in total oil demand. In 1985 the average performance for all U.S. passenger cars was 17.9 miles a gallon.

If this level of efficiency were to double by the end of the century, say to 36 miles a gallon, our oil needs for making gasoline could be cut in half, by about 4 million barrels of oil a day. This is almost the exact amount by which U.S. domestic oil production is projected to decline.

Automotive efficiency is the highest ticket item remaining for squeezing more oil out of the system. And with domestic production falling and exploration plummeting, the stakes are high for doing something meaningful on the demand side. Because if we don't, we are headed for a replay of the painful '70s, when others set the terms of our oil consumption.

It is misleading for the manufacturers to plead the case for big cars in the name of employment. They make their highest profit margin on bigger cars. In any event, data have shown that the American public prefers a comfortable, smaller and less expensive car that gets good gas mileage. U.S. manufacturers have demonstrated they can produce such a product, and it is not unrealistic that they continue to reach for higher standards of economy.

If the government does not set the norm of fuel economy as a matter of national priority, the automobile manufacturers will focus on short-term profitability. And as a result, the nation not only will lose a good shot at energy independence, but could lose the automobile industry as well.

So instead of abdicating government leadership in the name of some abstract ideological principle, the vice president and his associates would be better advised to respond to national need with a dose of common sense. And if they don't, then the Congress should set matters straight.

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